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Seeing 3D through Different Lenses

17 Jan, 2011 By: Chris Tribbey

LG's passive glasses

Despite the slick tablets and flashy Internet-connected devices, the 2011 International Consumer Electronics Show seemed much like last year’s: 3D was everywhere. Again.

3DTVs, 3D Blu-ray Disc players, 3D camcorders, 3D laptop displays, 3D cameras, 3D mobile, 3D gaming and even a futuristic, head-mounted prototype 3D display from Sony Electronics, which offers an individual 720p high-def picture and 5.1 surround sound experience.

But — other than the autostereoscopic (non-glasses) 3D displays from Sony, Toshiba and others, which could be years away from the living room — there was something new for 3D in the home: a potential 3DTV format war between passive glasses and the entrenched active-shutter technology embraced by the industry to date.

“We had heard a lot of activity in the supply chain on passive glasses, so it was not unexpected,” said Paul Gray, director of Europe TV market research and 3DTV for research firm DisplaySearch. “We expect them to be popular with certain set-makers. Unfortunately, it also looks likely to trigger a kind of format war, which is the last thing that 3D needs at this time.”

LG Electronics, Toshiba and Vizio, along with smaller 3DTV manufacturers such as Sceptre, debuted new passive-glasses displays, an option built on the hope that consumers embrace the same 3D experience at home they’ve been eating up in theaters. Others, including Sony and Panasonic, stood pat with active-shutter technology.

“This was sort of ‘3DTV take two,’” said Andrew Eisner, director of community and content for Retrevo, an online consumer electronics research group. “3DTV didn’t catch on last year as fast as [the industry] might have liked, and they’re thinking passive might be more attractive.”

But passive displays cost much more to manufacture, Eisner noted — the 3D effect is built into the display, not the glasses — and the quality with passive displays asks consumers to sacrifice the full high-def picture offered with 3D Blu-ray.

“It’s never going to be as good as active-shutter,” he said.

Active-shutter glasses — which need to be charged — deliver two high-def images from the screen by rapidly alternating left- and right-eye images. Polarized, passive glasses show 3D images to both eyes simultaneously. The crucial distinction between them: Only active-shutter can currently deliver the 1080p, Blu-ray quality 3D video the home entertainment industry is delivering, the ultimate image consumers can match with their high-def screens.

“I was quite surprised to see so many companies move toward passive versus active,” Brendan Surpless, co-founder of home entertainment site PixlJunkies.com, said of CES 2011. “I’m not really quite sure why so many companies are favoring this route.”

Passive glasses have been praised for easier long-term viewing, but they lose half of the vertical lines of a high-def picture, offering 1,920 x 540 pixels resolution. That’s also half the lines of vertical resolution of active-shutter.

“I was actually surprised there weren’t more passive 3DTVs at CES this year, but I was surprised how bad they looked,” said Ben Drawbaugh, contributing high-def editor at Engadget.com. “Don’t get me wrong — they weren’t terrible. But the obvious screen-door effect on the passive 3DTVs at CES this year reminded me of the old HDTVs from years ago.

“The real question isn’t how good they look though; it’s how much will they cost. People won’t pay more for something that looks worse just to ditch heavy glasses.”

Pricing for the new passive displays has not been released.

Los Angeles’ XpanD took a slight dig at the idea of passive 3DTV glasses at CES, when it introduced its “Youniversal” active-shutter 3D glasses, which can be customized — and personalized for the user’s face — for current 3DTVs using active-shutter technology.

“Only active 3D glasses can provide full HD 3D experiences,” stated Ami Dror, XpanD’s chief strategy officer.

Scott Hettrick, publisher and editor-in-chief of HollywoodInHiDef.com, said the appeal of passive glasses for consumer electronics companies and consumers is obvious: They’re cheaper, require less effort and “work in any 3D situation.”

“I think manufacturers and consumers both agree that in a perfect world, and conceptually, passive glasses are preferable to active-shutter, and autostereoscopic is everyone’s holy grail,” he said. “Also, it’s an easy lure for display companies to appeal to consumers: Buy our sets and you don’t need to spend $150 per pair of glasses.”

Hettrick pointed out that Toshiba might be offering what’s most exciting for discussion, and most distressing for the 3D-at-home industry: “[They’re] offering every flavor of 3D to see what sticks: low-quality passive, higher-quality active-shutter and very expensive autostereoscopic.

“My concern is that all of these various solutions are going to create confusion and, thus, paralyze the consumer market. … It’s too much to expect and ask consumers to learn and choose between passive, active-shutter and autostereoscopic 3D.”

RealD — which leads the theatrical 3D glasses space — further muddied the 3DTV waters, unveiling a new 3D glasses system it’s developing with Samsung. The LCD-based RDZ technology aims to offer 1080p picture with theatrical-style polarized glasses, moving the active shutter technology into the display itself. There was no timeline for when consumers can buy that technology.

The idea of consumer confusion for 3D couldn’t come at a worse time for 3D content owners, who are hoping consumers latch on in 2011. After roughly 40 3D Blu-ray releases in 2010 — including releases bundled with specific 3D hardware — nearly 70 theatrical 3D releases are expected so far in 2011, hopefully all followed by a 3D Blu-ray release, according to Andy Parsons, SVP of corporate communications and new product planning for Pioneer and chair of the Blu-ray Disc Association, or BDA, promotion committee in the United States.

The BDA estimates that adoption of 3DTV has far outpaced the adoption of HDTV, comparing first-year sales of the two, and research firm Futuresource Consulting projects 3DTVs in roughly 60% of homes by 2015, with 1.8 million sold through the end of 2010.

Along with more 3D on-demand content from cable and satellite providers, full 3D channels also are picking up steam. ESPN announced its 3D channel would air 24/7 starting on Valentine’s Day, and Sony, Imax and Discovery Communications announced 3Net, a 3D channel boasting the largest library of content for 3D broadcast.

Panasonic and Verizon also teamed up at CES to show it was possible to transmit 1080p 3D streaming video via Verizon’s 100% fiber-optic FiOS TV service.

“Panasonic has always believed that the best way to view 3D is via a full HD, 1080p resolution image, but until now the only option available has been on Blu-ray Disc media,” Eisuke Tsuyuzaki, chief technology officer for Panasonic Corp. North America, said in the CES announcement.

Passive displays won’t be able to take full advantage of that 1080p content, but regardless of passive or active-shutter, the Blu-ray industry is “happy there are people watching,” the BDA’s Parsons said.

The question then is whether consumers care enough about 1080p to ask for the best 3DTV quality available, according to Victor Matsuda, VP of Sony Corp.’s Blu-ray Disc Group.

“You’d think they would like to see it in the best way possible,” he said.

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